June 26, 2008

Instinct Pales Next to iPhone in Some Ways, but It’s Still a Worthy Rival

By Edward C. Baig

You've got to feel a little sorry for the folks at Samsung and Sprint Nextel. Last Friday, they launched a feature-rich, attractive and generously priced $130 smartphone called Instinct, yet all anyone wants to gab about is the new iPhone coming July11 from Apple and AT&T.

Instinct invites the inevitable comparisons to its iconic rival. Instinct and iPhone kind of resemble each other. And both run off their respective carriers' fastest cellular networks.

Moreover, it may be an iPhone wannabe, but Instinct boasts features the iPhone doesn't offer. These include mobile radio and TV services, voice dialing, stereo Bluetooth, expandable memory, a camera that shoots video and a removable battery. Heck, Sprint even tosses in a spare, which you can charge outside the phone.

One more thing Sprint supplies that Apple doesn't: a carrying case that in hindsight I should have used. Its touch-screen got a nasty scratch after I carried it unprotected in my pocket during tests in Manhattan, northern New Jersey and South Florida.

All this indeed makes Instinct a worthy rival to the iPhone, even if it falls short. Apple's software is more intuitive and pleasurable. The iPhone makes beautiful use of an "accelerometer" for orienting the screen horizontally or vertically depending on what you are doing. With Instinct, there doesn't always seem to be a rhyme or reason for when you must rotate the device.

Moreover, even with a Web browser capable of showing the real deal Internet rather than pages optimized for mobile viewing, the experience pales next to iPhone. Ditto for e-mail.

Here's closer look:

*The basic Instinct. At 4.4 ounces and just over 4 1/2 inches tall, 2 inches wide and a half-inch thick, Instinct is close physically to the iPhone. Its 3.1-inch display is a little smaller than Apple's, however, and of a lesser resolution.

Three main touch controls light up just below the screen: Back, Phone and Home. Pressing Home brings you to a screen with additional controls. Tap Fun to access icons for music, TV/video and more. Tap Main to get to e-mail, navigation, etc. Tap Web for Internet-related stuff. Easy enough.

Instinct comes with a 2-gigabyte MicroSD memory card, which can be upgraded to 8 GB.

*Dialing. You can make calls by tapping on your contacts, speed-dial numbers and recently called numbers, or by summoning a dial pad. The most obvious -- and for some, startling -- thing you'll notice when you make a call or tap other buttons is the way the phone gently vibrates. This sensory feedback is known as haptics, Greek for the science of touch. Its usefulness can be debated; the idea is you'll know a button has been pressed.

For an incoming call, a button appears on the screen: Slide it up to answer or down to ignore. But my first instinct was to tap, not slide. Confusingly, tapping worked for a couple of calls but not others. To end a call, you have to slide an "end call" button from left to right, eliminating accidental hang-ups.

As with iPhone, visual voice mail conveniently lets you hear messages in any order. A lock feature ensures you won't accidentally wipe out a message.

*E-mail. Setting up accounts for AIM, AOL, Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo is simply a matter of tapping in your user name and password. You can also access corporate mail. But sending mail is more cumbersome, partly because of the maddening portrait/landscape switching and partly because the virtual keyboard could be better designed. And it doesn't correct errors on the fly like iPhone's keyboard does.

*Location. GPS for tracking your whereabouts worked nicely. You can get audible turn-by-turn driving directions. I was impressed by a Live Search feature that lets you bark out a search command (auto repair, pizza, etc.) then get a text list of nearby places, with maps and directions. I used the feature to find a Macy's and Smith & Wollensky restaurant in Miami Beach.

*The Web. With the onboard browser, you can display an actual Web page. But there are only a few settings for zooming in. You're left begging for an iPhone-like multitouch experience for "pinching" pages to better view the sites. I desperately longed for another missing feature, Wi-Fi, to supplement the lousy cell coverage in and around my home.

Spotty coverage also made mobile TV so-so. Video would hiccup or sputter. Still, I was able to take in CNN live, while delayed at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

Sprint says you'll get about 5.75 hours of talk time, double if you factor in the spare battery. There are also game demos from third parties. You can buy full versions from the phone, but there's no applications store such as the one Apple has in the works for iPhone. A tips calculator is another nicety.

I wouldn't blame some people for choosing Instinct over iPhone for its lower price and impressive set of features. Not everyone is wild about AT&T, either. But I'm not sold yet: I'm sticking with iPhone.

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